Land, for many, if not for most, people can be a loaded term. In one sense, it is ground beneath our feet, the ground on which our home stands or the ground on which we raise a garden, or the ground on which our town or city stands, or the ground of our state or nation–a physical “thing” of soil and rocks and sand and muck.
In another sense, however, it is something less tangible and more emotional–and thus very powerful. Land is for many not only about where we stand or sit, but where our heart, our soul, feels at rest and even at peace (while guns may be firing all around us). Land is home, that is, a particular piece of land, a particular patch of ground, is home, is where we belong.
And because we belong there, it is easy to begin to believe, to know, that that ground, that land, belongs to us, belongs to me and the people with whom I identify and among and by whom my identity is forged and maintained. Of course, land in the tangible sense is finite, there is only so much land on the globe, and it cannot expand. Thus, it often comes to pass that we, or some others, say, out of what seems like necessity (because there is not enough room for everyone), “if this is our land, then it cannot also be their land.”
As I wrote in Part 2 of this series (see link above), this became the situation in the United States as regards the conflict between European settlers and their offspring on the one side and the native peoples already here on the other.
There is another story about land and conflict that is well-known, and powerfully formative, for many of us, namely the mission of the ancient Hebrews to take possession of the land they were promised by their God. It is a story that begins with Abram who becomes Abraham as he follows God’s direction and whose son and his sons and beyond them get the people to Egypt where, alas, they become slaves. And then their God, the God whose true name is not to be said by humans, called Y H W H (Hebrew has no vowels, but often pronounced YahWay, more or less, and often written today as Yahweh), best translated from the ancient Hebrew as “I AM WHO I AM” (see Exodus 3:14-15), seeing their oppression and distress, told them to leave Egypt and go to a new land, a land of milk and honey. This is the Exodus, as inspiring a story as any people could want, the story on which other oppressed peoples have grounded their own struggles and journeys for liberation ever since.
The Hebrews wander for 40 years and many die. Many also are born. It is this people, those who were slaves in Egypt and their offspring, who, without the leader who brought them out of Egypt, enter the new land, their land, the land promised by their God.
There was a problem however. People were already living there. So, according to biblical texts, the Hebrews were told, by God, to drive them out, to make room for the keeping of the divine promise. These peoples, maybe native to the land or maybe they too came from somewhere else and claimed the land, were often called Canaanites (and there were other peoples as well).
According to the Book of Joshua, the Hebrews under his leadership bested the Canaanites, killing many of them and driving out the rest to settle in other locales. This is the same Joshua who led the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the slaughter of all its people.
However, much of this story is now in doubt. Archaeologists have dug extensively throughout the region and there is good reason to doubt the historicity of much of the conquest. It is even possible that those we call Hebrews who came into the land were people already living in Canaan. And it seems clear that many of these Canaanites were incorporated into Israel (seemingly totally “melted” into that pot without retaining any part of their previous identity).
Of course, facts discovered by later scholars do not eliminate the power of the narrative to shape history. Most of us read biblical stories without intellectual and historical companions at hand. And we have to remember that land is more than ground, that it also is the emotional, filial and familial, and national, bonds buried deep in the ground–and that history is more than facts.
In view of the persistent power of the narrative, some Native American liberation theologians, most notably Robert Allen Warrior, have raised issue with using the Exodus story as a master narrative, or template, for the liberation of oppressed peoples. He writes,
…the narrative tells us that the Canaanites have status only as the people Yahweh removes from the land in order to bring the chosen people in. They are not to be trusted, nor are they to be allowed to enter into social relationships with the people of Israel. They are wicked, and their religion is to be avoided at all costs. –from Warrior’s essay, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians”
Why is this so important to Warrior and other native writers? As people descended from those living on, thriving in, this land when Europeans arrived and began their push to own all that land, they see themselves as Canaanites. Thus they see not only liberation but also conquest, with themselves as the conquered.
As we go forward on this journey of wrestling with the contemporary question of Israel/Palestine, “whose land is it, anyway?” all the layers of that ancient story (and the subsequent historical archaeology discoveries)–and the interplay of liberation and conquest–must echo in, and touch, our thoughts.